Sharing life stories, capturing memories

Tottenham based radio show provides space for biographic storytelling and palliative care discussion

By Luchia Robinson

Script read through                  Credit: Luchia Robinson

TV executive and radio interviewer, Barbara Altounyan was about to start her career as a BBC news trainee when her father was diagnosed terminally ill.

Barbara had the idea of interviewing her father for an account of his life, but was met with opposition from her mother and siblings– ultimately, it was her father’s decision to tell his story.

The interview would be the foundation of Hospice Biographers; the national charity Barbara went on to found, which captures the life stories of terminally ill patients.

It would also lead to what is now a monthly radio show called, We Remember Lives, which is broadcast on Tottenham Hale radio station, Threads.

Barbara and a team of specialists and volunteers discuss a range of topics associated with palliative care on the programme – from hospices facing funding crises, to bereavement, to end-of-life care for prisoners.

David Wallace, a civil servant from Surrey volunteers on the show. He first met Barbara three years ago, when she interviewed his wife Suzanne, who was then a patient at the Princess Alice Hospice in Esher.

Both David and Suzanne got to know Barbara quite well, with Suzanne supporting the launch of Hospice Biographies and becoming a co-presenter of We Remember Lives, before she passed away in May.

David has a copy of Suzanne’s audio interviews.

“We haven’t actually listened to all of the recording yet, but it was very cathartic for Suzanne to go through her life and explain things that she probably hadn’t spoken to many people about,” said David.

“She found it very useful and we found it very helpful. The recording is there in the background– so we can listen to it, as and when we feel the need for it.”

Clips from the interview were played at Suzanne’s crematorium service.

David said: “It was a bit daunting to start with because we weren’t sure how that would come across, but it worked really well. It was quite amazing to hear Suzanne’s voice at her funeral– it was good.”

To date 128 patients have shared their life experiences and Hospice Biographers has trained 30 hospices in capturing these stories. There are 170 hospices nationally set to receive training over the next few years.

Barbara said: “There are people that don’t want to be interviewed, and frankly they’ve got every right to say no, but if they want to be interviewed then they should have the right to be interviewed.

“I just think it’s given the patients closure– a legacy, and also, it’s quite good to just put things straight.

“All of my interviewees are a mixed bag– some of them are happy, some of them have had terrible medication that’s not worked, some of them feel troubled, but when they come in and they start thinking about their past, they don’t really see me anymore, they look straight through me, and I’m just the woman with the microphone.

“They start remembering everything that was in their childhood– where they were born, and what happened to them. They remember massive detail.”

Threads studio                     Credit: Luchia Robinson

The radio show has helped broaden the conversation further, mixing personal accounts with professional expertise.

Dr Jo Brady is a Consultant in palliative medicine, and Deputy Medical Director at The North London Hospice, which supports people with life limiting diagnosis in Haringey, Barnet and Enfield.

Jo takes part in We Remember Lives, and she has connected some of her patients to Hospice Biographers.

“When people are facing the end of their life they often start thinking about their legacy– ‘what is their story? ‘who are they leaving behind?’ ‘what’s their narrative?’ This charity is a wonderful opportunity for people to take that time out to reflect,” said Jo.

“As a doctor, when I went into this, I thought it would all be about the drugs, the symptoms, the pain relief, and what medicines I could change to help improve things. But what I’ve come to learn about palliative medicine is so much broader than that.

“It’s about the human and their world. I think we are all natural storytellers and this charity helps patients find peace with who they are and what they are leaving behind.

“I find it very rewarding to support people in a way that is much more diverse than just medicine– it’s much more holistic and much more humane.”